Monumental Occassion: Thomas Francis Meagher
In the middle of the road between the Tower Hotel and Reginalds Tower in Waterford City stands a statue of Thomas Francis Meagher. Erected in 2004, the statue pays tribute to “Meagher Of The Sword”- Irish Revolutionary, Brigadier General, and the man who presented Ireland with our tricolour- using the colours to signify a hopeful lasting peace between the Catholics and the Protestants. But what of the story of the man himself?
Meagher was born August 3, 1823, in Waterford. He came from an established Catholic Tipperary family of tailors and vintners. His father, Thomas Meagher, was born in Newfoundland to Thomas Meagher and Mary Crotty, and was a merchant for the “Waterford-Newfoundland” trade. An MP for Waterford and its first Roman Catholic Lord Mayor in over two centuries, thanks to Daniel O’Connell’s successful agitation. His wife, Alicia Quan, was the second eldest daughter of Thomas Quan and Alicia Forristall.
Young Meagher was educated at Jesuit boarding schools- Clongowes Wood in Ireland, and Stonyhurst College in England. While at school, Thomas Francis gained a broad education and came into his own as a orator, although he developed what one Irishman called “a Saxon accent”, becoming the youngest medalist of the Clowgowes Wood Debating Society at the young age of 15. After graduating from Stonyhurst, Meagher left Ireland for a tour of the greater continent, and became imbued with the spirit of revolution then very much alive in Germany and France.
Meagher returned to Waterford in 1843, where he also first heard Daniel O’Connell speak. As a result of this speech, he joined the campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union with Great Britain of 1801. In 1845, he became a founding member of the Young Ireland group, which among them included William Smith O’Brien. The group favoured more aggressive action for home rule than O’Connell was willing to support, causing its split from O’Connell’s Repeal party. It was a fiery speech by Meagher supporting armed insurrection as a means of Irish independence that finalized the split with Repeal, and earned Meagher the sobriquet- “Meagher of the Sword”.
In January 1847, after the Great Hunger and a typhus epidemic swept through Ireland, Meagher, together with John Mitchel, William Smith O’Brien, and Thomas Devine Reilly formed a new repeal body, the Irish Confederation and openly preaching revolution. In 1848, Meagher and O’Brien went to France to study the revolutionary events taking place there, and returned to Ireland with the design for a new Flag of Ireland, a tricolour of orange, white and green gifted by the French.
The acquisition of the flag is commemorated at the statue in Waterford. The design used in 1848 was similar to the present flag, except with the differences that orange was placed next to the staff, and the red Memorial plaque on the Waterford monument. Feature Thomas Francis Meagher hand of Ulster decorated the white field. This flag was first flown in public in March 1848, during the Waterford by-election, when Meagher and his friends flew the flag from the headquarters of Meagher’s “Wolfe Tone Confederate Club” in Waterford.
In August 1848, Meagher, Terence MacManus, Smith O’Brien, and Patrick O’Donohoe were arrested for the failed Ballingarry “Famine Rebellion”, and tried and convicted for sedition, which, due to a newly passed ex post facto law, meant that Meagher and his colleagues were sentenced to be “hung, drawn and quartered”. But it was after this trial that Meagher delivered his infamous Speech From the Dock – second only to Robert Emmet’s pre-execution speech in the pantheon of Irish political rhetoric.
Meagher and his colleagues were soon joined in Richmond Gaol, Dublin, by Kevin O’Doherty and John Martin; but the death sentences were altered, transportation to “the other side of the world” was deemed appropriate and in 1849 all were deported to Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania. On July 20th, the day after being notified he was to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, Meagher announced he wished henceforth to be known as Thomas Francis O’Meagher.
Meagher accepted the “ticket-of-leave” in Tasmania, and gave his word not to attempt to escape without first notifying the authorities, in return for comparative liberty on the island. A further stipulation was that each of the Irish “gentleman” convicts were sent to reside in separate districts. However, throughout his time in Tasmania, Meagher continued to meet clandestinely with and plot with his fellow Irish rebels, especially at Interlaken on Lake Sorell.
Arrival to America
In January 1852, Meagher broke his “ticket-of-leave” pledge and escaped to America. He arrived in New York City in May 1852. When the question of “honour” was later raised, Meagher agreed to subject himself to a “trial” of American notables and to return to Van Diemen’s Land if they held against him. The “jury” (of unknown ethnic extraction) found for Meagher.
Meagher then pursued journalism and studied law, gave lecture tours and, with John Mitchell (who had also escaped), published the radical pro-Irish, anti-British “Citizen”. He served the Union Army as a U.S. citizen. As acting Major heled Company K of the 69th Regiment, known as the “Fighting Irish”, of the New York State Militia at Bull Run. Returning to New York to form the Irish Brigade, he led it at as Brigadier-General in the Peninsula Campaign at Fair Oaks, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Peach Orchard (Allen’s Farm), Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville.
He resigned in May 1863 over the army’s refusal to let him return to New York to raise reinforcements for his battered brigade: 4,000 strong in mid-May 1862, just over a year later the brigade had only approximately 500 combat-ready men left.
After the death of another leading Irish political figure, Michael Corcoran, Meagher’s resignation was rescinded and he was assigned to duty with the western armies, serving under General William Tecumseh Sherman, a Catholic convert. Sherman was unimpressed, considering Meagher a foreign rabble-rouser, and assigned him to non-combat duties outside of the theatre of operations, in which capacity he finished out the war.
After the war, Meagher was appointed Secretary of the new Territory of Montana, and soon after arriving in the territorial capital he was designated the Acting Governor. In this position, Meagher attempted to create a working relationship between the territory’s Republican executive and judicial branches, who supported the Union, and the Democratic legislative branch who sympathized with the Confederacy. He ultimately failed, and made enemies in both camps.
In the summer of 1867, he prepared to travel East to press for a settlement of Montana’s political issues, to lobby for increased militia spending, and, possibly, to visit his son in Ireland. He fell ill on the way to Ft. Benton, the Missouri River terminus for steamboat travel, choosing to stop for a day to recuperate. When he eventually reached Fort Benton, he was still ill, but still managed to take some time with local politicians and admirers. Reports here are contradictory, with some stating that he spent the afternoon imbibing with his well-wishers, while others say that he was simply ill to drink.
Meagher’s supposed compatriot, Colonel W. F. Sanders, stated that Meagher appeared to be acting “mentally deranged” and was “loudly demanding a revolver to defend himself against the citizens of Ft. Benton.” It was allegedly suggested to the General that he should get some rest, and it is said that this is what he purported to do, reboarding his steamboat sometime in the early evening. After about 11:00 PM, according to Sanders, “there was a colored man…the barber…[who] said a man had let himself down from the upper to the lower deck and jumped into the river and gone on down the stream.”
Sanders goes on to say that “the next day some members of the general staff” said that he, Sanders, must not mention anything about Meagher’s mental condition or that the drowning was not an accident in his letter to Meagher’s wife. But Sanders refused to do this, and explained everything to Mrs. Meagher as he saw and as he was told by the witnesses. Afterwards, no one seems to have questioned the barber’s report as suspicious, or the fact that since Meagher had recently switched party affiliations to Democratic. Sanders had alienated himself from Meagher saying that “the secessionists (then called Democratic)…took charge of Gov. Meagher.”
One other witness, a female passenger who had remained on board the steamboat, recalled that she heard a deck-hand yelling “man over-board” at about the same time Meagher disappeared; and several years later at least two people attempted to “admit” that they in fact had something to do with Meagher being murdered. But none of the accounts did lead to any sufficient discovery. Meagher’s death is still considered to be suspicious, however; and as he was outspoken, there could have been numerous persons who would have wanted to murder him.
Meagher, an evidently strong man of great character, may have dedicated much of his life to the United States, but his contribution to our country through the tricolour cannot be overlooked. It his own words, its simplicity belies an honourable and inspirational signifance- “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the ‘Orange’ and the ‘Green’, and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”